Monday, October 19, 2009

A Soviet Conception of Time

What’s so interesting about the Soviet Union? The answer is that the regime embodied a unique conception of time. According to Peter Fritzsche at the University of Illinois at Urbana (who has synthesized the work of various social theorists including Terdiman and Kosselleck and Kern), only the German fascists shared the Soviet conception of temporality. For both states, the future was wide open, changeable, and open-ended.

If one asked a typical Russian governmental official from the 19th century what the future would look like, he would probably have answered—with more or less optimism—that one could expect a great deal of progress. There would be more railroads, higher levels of literacy, more agricultural produce, more independent farmers, more territory, and more spectacular cultural achievements. There would be more of the present, in other words, but nothing totally unexpected. (Conservative officials might even have expected less of the same). The Soviets thought about the future differently. They expected the unexpected. They believed they could change everything, and do this almost overnight.

The concept of the five-year plan, designed to skip long phases of ordinary economic development, is typical of the Soviet expectations. The Bolsheviks, as a party, began their career by arguing—contrary to Marx’s own opinions on the subject—that revolutionary action was appropriate even in backward Russia. They soon came to the conclusion that Russia could ignore the ordinary laws of social development and leapfrog past the capitalist economies that had failed to be devoured by Leftist revolt. As late as the 1960s, Khrushchev’s Russia was convinced it could “bury” the West by willpower alone.

Nikita Khrushchev Addresses UN

In the Soviet worldview, facts and statistics were nearly irrelevant. Soviet Russia could coerce its citizenry as well as the ordinary temporal process to achieve the impossible, such as building an industrial economy where there had hitherto been only an agrarian one, or creating a nuclear program when the country lagged far behind America in terms of its overall scientific establishment.

To some extent, the Soviet approach to the future was part of the zeitgeist. Even F.D.R.’s American believed it could overcome ordinary economic processes. As we all know, F.D.R. was a relentless experimenter who tried to master a Depression through an endless variety of brand new government programs and initiatives. Following World War II, European welfare states took this approach even further, creating super states that attempted to suppress and overcome what had once been seen as iron laws of cyclical economic catastrophe.

The Soviets took this much further. They believed they were creating a whole new human species. Of course, the Nazis also believed this, and took their philosophy to genocidal extremes. But the Soviets weren’t so different. They thought they too were creating a new species of humans, Homo Sovieticus. As a result of education and social engineering, people would cease to be what they had once been: private, selfish, competitive, warlike, uncreative, uneducated, exploitative, bigoted, irrational, and—above all—bourgeois.

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